One of the more significant threats to hog farmers is staph infection -- an often relatively harmless disease that manifests itself on the skin as boils and red sores. A staph infection at its worst is deadly; staph bacteria can reach the deeper parts of its host, such as the bones, bloodstream, and even vital organs like the lungs or the heart. Once in the bloodstream, a staph infection can cause sepsis, a condition wherein there is organ injury in response to infection, leading to low blood pressure that is fatal.
Fortunately, researchers may have found a simple solution to combat staph bacteria. Scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently published a study on staph infections among hog farm workers and their families, and their key finding revealed that face masks reduce the likelihood of staph infections among hog farmers by up to 70 percent.
The study followed 101 hog farm workers and 79 of their household members for four months. Using lab results from nasal swabs to detect bacterial colonization among the farmers and their family members, scientists found that farmers who used face masks showed a 50 to 70 percent reduction in the occurrence of Staphylococcus aureus strains -- a strain of staph bacteria found in livestock. Back home, their families exhibited 80 to 90 percent reduction in testing positive for the aforementioned staph bacteria strain.
Combating the livestock-derived S. aureus strain is particularly important; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the strain causes roughly 80,000 severe infections a year, leading to a high fatality rate, with around 11,000 of these infections turning out to be fatal.
Consistency is key, according to the researchers. The subjects who showed a significant reduction in staph bacteria colonization were asked to wear face masks for more than 80 percent of their total work hours.
“Face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) could be effective in reducing occupational exposure to livestock-associated S. aureus,” said Christopher D. Heaney, Ph.D., senior author of the study.
However, Heaney noted that this was only an observational study, and expressed a desire to see more extensive trials to confirm their study’s findings. “More studies like this are needed because concentrated animal feeding operations are a potential entry point for drug-resistant bacteria into the community,” said Heaney.
Staph infections don’t stop at infecting farmers and their household members. Staph bacteria are known as one of the most common causes of food poisoning, which really highlights the importance of stopping staph infection occurrence in pig farms. While not always fatal, food poisoning due to staph infection causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Then there’s the low blood pressure caused by sepsis to really watch out for. (Related: Lavender kills antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria.)
Heaney noted that face masks are just one way to protect farmers from infection. “When workers are issued face masks they may find it hard to breathe adequately while wearing the masks, especially when doing strenuous tasks in hot conditions,” said Heaney.
Regulations exist to “provide respirators to workers who are exposed to harmful dusts, gases, smoke or sprays,” Heaney said. He added that these regulations currently do not extend to using face masks and other forms of PPE to reduce the transmission of microbes from animals.
While the study does not claim to offer a perfect solution to staph infection among hog farmers and their families, it is a big step toward protecting everyone from staph bacteria.